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Universities failing to make the grade on net zero

Christophe Williams on the FE News Exclusive background

As universities come under increasing pressure to improve their sustainability performance, they are missing a crucial opportunity to accelerate their transition to net zero. Heat energy takes up over half of global energy demand. If universities are serious about transitioning away from fossil fuels, they need to decarbonise their heat.

As the effects of climate change ramp up, the decarbonisation of British universities presents a great opportunity to accelerate the country’s net zero efforts.

While UK institutions have been gradually improving their sustainability performance – with universities like Birmingham and Lancaster leading the way – many of them still rely heavily on fossil fuels.

Those in charge of campus sustainability may jump straight to electrification, but they’re missing a trick. If universities want to make a real impact, then they need to look at their heat consumption.

Heat is often the forgotten aspect of our energy transition. Heating and cooling make up more than half the world’s energy consumption and a third of the UK’s carbon emissions. Around 90% of that energy is currently generated from fossil fuels.

If universities are serious about decarbonising, then they should be looking at their heat consumption.

Other countries doing it better

Whilst universities around the world are coming under increasing pressure to improve their sustainability performance, the UK is falling behind the curve.

By-and-large, universities overseas are outperforming their UK counterparts in sustainability rankings, and student climate campaigners have warned that nearly half of UK universities aren’t on track to meet emissions targets. Students are demanding climate action from their universities.

North America is doing particularly well, with the United States leading the pack as a result of Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

Campuses have been able to seize the opportunity to invest in green technologies due in part to the funding, with many exploring a variety of different on-site renewable tech to accelerate their transition away from fossil fuels.

Solar thermal is proving to be one piece of the decarbonisation puzzle for universities’ looking to reduce their fossil fuel usage.

In October 2023, Naked Energy completed their first installation in the US at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.

The project consists of 240 VirtuHOT solar thermal collectors, allowing the new Graves’ Hall building to heat water for 400 campus residents, and reduce the university’s carbon emissions by 40 metric tonnes each year – the equivalent to nearly 100 barrels of oil.

The installation is also equipped with traditional solar PV. Both these technologies compliment each other and reduce the building’s fossil fuel demand. It’s this technology agnostic approach that we need to see more of.

There’s no silver bullet, no single technology to tackle climate change, and projects like the one at Creighton University are shining examples of campus buildings done correctly.

What can the UK do?

But what can the UK be doing to catch up? Well, it’s not all doom and gloom.

Funds like Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme (PSDS) are available to public universities to help fund green projects, and there are exemplar projects being installed on both Birmingham and Lancaster campuses.

However, there are still several barriers that universities must overcome before they can begin to roll out renewable technology.

The process of applying for grants is often mired in red tape, and application forms are unnecessarily complex.

In our experience, the hurdles for universities are often too high for them to take full advantage of decarbonisation measures.

Instead, the central Government should speed up green-lighting those projects which don’t require grid connection, which are currently prolonged by long and unpractical planning permissions. These kinds of projects can save universities money and reduce their carbon emissions immediately after installation. 

Consistent policy is the key to encouraging investment. The current political landscape leaves universities unable to plan for the long-term, so they’re forced to focus on short-term cost savings instead of investing in long-term, carbon reduction projects.

To address the urgency of heat decarbonisation, an education piece is needed for investors and policymakers. This is paramount as heat takes up over half of global energy demand.

Decarbonising the heat demand of UK campuses provides the opportunity to decentralise their energy generation, and invest in off-grid renewable infrastructure.

Solar thermal presents a viable opportunity to allow buildings to generate and store their own heat.

As well as providing clean energy, solar thermal can be cheaper than electrification and has a higher energy density than solar PV. Millions of Europeans already benefit from competitive solar thermal solutions and the continent is a net exporter of solar thermal technology.

By staying reliant on oil and gas, they risk being more exposed to energy price shocks to the system, as we’re all too familiar with in light of the war in Ukraine, and will be worse off in the long-run.

Get on par with international counterparts

It’s clear that UK institutions need to step up their game if we’re to match overseas decarbonisation efforts.

Domestic universities and the public sector that supports them should be looking at the projects being rolled out across North America and take note.

With a variety of technologies available on the market, British institutions have viable alternatives to fossil fuel generation ready at their disposal.

This, matched with a shift in Government policy, would incentivise universities to begin investing in off-grid infrastructure, truly accelerating the sector’s decarbonisation efforts.

If universities are serious about reducing their emissions, then they should be prioritising the decarbonisation of heat. If they don’t, then the sector may never reach net zero.

By Christophe Williams, CEO of Naked Energy

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